A Tudor Tragedy-The Mysterious Death Of Amy Dudley

On a pleasant autumn afternoon on 8th September 1560, the body of a young noblewoman was discovered lying at the foot of a staircase in a manor house in the village of Cumnor, Berkshire by her friends upon their return from a nearby fair. The sudden and mysterious death of the seemingly innocuous Lady Amy Dudley would create an international scandal that went to the very heart of the British establishment; Queen Elizabeth I herself. For Lady Amy was the neglected wife of Elizabeth’s favourite and rumoured King-Consort-In-Waiting, Lord Robert Dudley (later the Earl of Leicester). The forbidden and ultimately doomed love of Elizabeth and Robert has inspired many works of fiction over the past 500 years, and the true nature of their relationship is still, in many respects, a mystery. But what of Amy, the inconvenient wife? Who was she, and was her death really the tragic accident it appeared to be?
Amy was born Amy Robsart on June 7th 1532 in Norfolk, the only child and heiress of Sir John Robsart, a gentleman of considerable means. Amy’s early life was typical of girls belonging to her class at the time and she was well-educated and considered beautiful. Some time in 1549, probably at the court of King Edward VI, she met her future husband Robert Dudley, the son of the immensely powerful Duke of Northumberland who served as Lord Protector for the young Edward. The two married on June 4th 1550 at the royal palace of Sheen with the King in attendance, and unusually for the time their union was widely believed to be a love match. As Amy was unable to inherit her parent’s estate until their deaths, the young couple were largely reliant on handouts from Robert’s father and had no establishment of their own, staying in the homes of various friends when they were not in attendance at court.
Sadly, life took an unpleasant turn for Amy and Robert upon the death of Edward VI in 1553. Shortly before his death, the Protestant king had nominated his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his successor in attempt to override the will of his father Henry VIII who had named Edward’s staunchly Catholic sister Mary (followed by Elizabeth) as heir in the event of Edward dying childless. Rather conveniently, the Duke of Northumberland had recently arranged for Jane to marry Robert’s brother Guildford, thus making himself father-in-law to the Queen. However, Jane ruled for only nine days before Mary rode triumphantly into London, taking the throne herself with the overwhelming support of the population. Those who had taken part in the coup were rounded up and thrown into the Tower of London, including Robert who had been sentenced to death. He remained in prison between July 1553 and October 1554, receiving occasional visits from Amy and sharing his imprisonment with Elizabeth, who had also been arrested on suspicion of also plotting against Mary during the ill-fated Wyatt’s Rebellion. During this time, Amy lived in the home of William Hyder in Throcking, Hertfordshire.
On 17th November 1558, Mary died and Elizabeth took the throne. Mary’s reign, which had begun with such popular acclaim, ended in widespread discontent. Her marriage to Philip II of Spain was wildly unpopular, she had lost Calais (England’s last French territory) and her brutal persecution of Protestants had cast the country into a state of terror. The accession of the young, attractive, liberal Elizabeth was an occasion for great hope and by her side was Robert Dudley. He was immediately appointed Elizabeth’s Master of Horse, a position of huge power which granted him a peerage and membership of the Privy Council. By April of 1559 it was clear that Elizabeth and Robert were in love. Rumours swirled around the couple and it was widely reported that Amy was suffering a malady of the breast and was dying, making it only a matter of time before Elizabeth married Robert. The Queen was a famously jealous woman, preferring to forget about Amy’s existence altogether and keeping Robert permanently close Indeed he was only to see his wife twice before she died, visiting her briefly over Easter in 1559 before Amy attended court for a month in May.
By the autumn of 1559 Elizabeth was under huge pressure to marry. The only way the succession could be assured and future conflict avoided was by the production of heirs. Foreign princes vied for her hand, and Robert made many enemies. Foreign ambassadors were infuriated by Elizabeth’s refusal to take their master’s suits seriously and the English nobility blamed Robert for her refusal to consent to a betrothal. Once more rumours surfaced, it was said that Elizabeth and Robert were poisoning Amy who spent her days writing melancholy letters to friends grieving over her husband’s absence, and that the marriage negotiations were a mere charade to keep the country and Robert’s enemies distracted until Amy died.
However, Amy’s death was not as a result of poison. Robert was informed that his wife had died the day after the event whilst he was at Windsor with the Queen and he immediately dispatched his steward, Thomas Blount, to Cumnor in order to investigate the death and order an inquest. Blount interviewed Amy’s friends and ascertained that on the day of Amy’s death a fair was taking place in nearby Abingdon. Amy had insisted that everyone bar herself attend the fair, and had become agitated when one of her friends had expressed reluctance to go. Ultimately Amy got her way, and was alone until the rest of the household returned to find her dead at the bottom of the stairs with two head wounds and a broken neck. Blount also spoke with Amy’s maid Mrs Pincto who acknowledged that Amy seemed depressed and was behaving strangely, but also emphasized her mistress’s many virtues, including a devotion to religion that made suicide impossible and who ultimately believed Amy’s death to be an accident.
An inquest was quickly arranged, with the coronor being assisted in his investigations by a jury of fifteen local gentleman. Blount wrote to Robert to assure him that no stone was being left unturned in the quest to discover the truth, and the jury foreman also sent a letter telling Robert no evidence was found to suggest Amy’s death was anything other than a tragic accident. This was officially confirmed on August 1st 1561 when the coronor ruled Amy’s death an accident. She was buried at St Mary’s, Oxford in an extravagant funeral and Robert retired to his house In Kew, wearing mourning clothes for six months.
However, Robert’s absence did little to dampen the flames of scandal erupting court. William Cecil, the Queen’s Principal Secretary and no fan of Robert’s was aware of Amy’s death before it was officially announced and lost no time in telling the Spanish Ambassador that Robert and Elizabeth has poisoned Amy whilst claiming she was ill in order to marry. Similarly, the English Ambassador to France Nicholas Throckmorton encouraged rumours in the French court that Amy’s death was no accident. Privately, neither Cecil nor Throckmorton believed Robert had killed Amy, but both would see their influence curtailed greatly if he were to become King, and therefore had every reason to promote suspicion of Robert. They were successful Robert returned to court in October and whilst they remained as close as ever with the Queen publicly affirming Robert’s innocence, the scandal surrounding Amy’s death was of such magnitude that there could be no possibility of them ever marrying.
There are four basic theories regarding Amy’s death. The first and most widely circulated at the time is that Elizabeth and Robert ordered Amy’s murder in order to marry. The first published account of the ‘murder’ appeared in 1563 in the libellous propaganda piece ‘Leicester’s Commonwealth’ written by British Catholics in exile. In this narrative Robert’s retainer Sir Richard Verney attends Cumnor Place, ordering the inhabitants to attend the fair before breaking Amy’s neck and placing her at the bottom of the stairs. He is accompanied by a servant who is also murdered on Robert’s orders and the jury in fact returns a verdict of murder (presumably covered up) with Amy being buried at Cumnor Parish church then secretly disinterred and reburied in Oxford. Walter Scott’s nineteenth century novel expounds on this idea. However, this theory does not hold up to scrutiny. Both Robert and Elizabeth were highly intelligent and had a firm grasp on politics. They would have known that murdering Amy would have made their marriage impossible, and whilst a divorce was still difficult to obtain at that time, it would have been a far more viable option than murder. Furthermore, after the initial inquest was concluded Robert in fact proposed that a second be held, with jurors including Amy’s friends and half-brothers, although it is unclear why this never took place. It seems unlikely that a guilty man would invite further scrutiny after being absolved of any blame, and letters written by Robert during the immediate aftermath of Amy’s death clearly demonstrate his agitated bewilderment.
Another theory blames William Cecil for Amy’s death. Arguably he had the most to gain; he was a wily and astute politician who knew that implicating Robert in the death of his wife would prevent him ever becoming king, an eventuality he was desperate to avoid. In an era where people were expendable in the eyes of those either seeking to gain power or consolidate that which they already had, the murder of innocents was rarely balked at by those at the top, particularly given they didn’t need to get their own hands dirty. However, whilst Cecil was undoubtedly ruthless, he was also fiercely loyal to Elizabeth and would have known that she too would suffer as a consequence of such scandal.
Others believe Amy committed suicide. Letters written shortly before her death certainly suggest her spirits were low. Essentially abandoned by the husband she adored and with no permanent home, she was almost certainly lonely and may well have felt like a burden as she passed from household to household, eternally dependent on the kindness of her husband’s friends. She was also unwell, possibly with breast cancer, which may well have furthered her despondency and her adamancy that everyone attend the fair without her on the day she died is most peculiar That being said, throwing oneself down the stairs is hardly the most likely of suicide methods given that there is no guarantee of death and Amy was a deeply religious woman. Suicide was a mortal sin in the eyes of the church, with victims buried outside of hallowed ground and barred from entering heaven.
The final, and in my opinion most likely theory, is that Amy’s death was a tragic accident. In 1956 Professor of medicine Ian Aird put forward the idea that Amy was suffering from breast cancer, which caused metastatic cancerous deposits in her spine. This means her neck could break with the application of very little force, including a short fall or even simply walking down the stairs. It seems plausible to me that given the circumstances surrounding Amy, especially her husband’s relationship with the Queen, her death was turned into a far bigger mystery than it really was. Regardless of the truth, the death of a lonely, entirely innocent young woman who deserved far better from life was exploited by the unscrupulous for political gain and the tragedy of what befell her forgotten. Five hundred years later, we still see what should be the private tragedies of the innocent exploited in the same way. We should remember Amy Dudley and those like her, and firmly stand against the use of innocents as political pawns.

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